Vincent Bezuidenhout: You currently have an exhibition, Conversations with my Father, on as part of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in the Alumni Gallery of the Albany Museum, can you tell me a little about the show?
Monique Pelser: It is an installation of found footage, sound and objects reflecting my grandfather and father’s careers in the SAPS. The show is set up in the structure of a storyboard, mapping out a film. The work is about patriarchy and systems of power. It is my intention to use my father as an allegorical figure for authority. As you enter the gallery you pass between two pull up banners on which an image of my father’s police dog Shaddow is printed onto banner weave –the material that the national flag is printed onto– the dogs guard the entrance and are there to show loyalty and protection but also something that can turn on you. I have worked with an institutional aesthetic in order to create a feeling of anxiety in the gallery. At the back of the gallery I have built an interrogation room which doubles up as a sound booth or recording studio. There is a live feed into the gallery and audience members are invited to enter the booth and read the script I have written. The story is about the inability to represent an incident such as a police suicide and by extension speaks about a failure of representation of trauma. Mostly I am interested in systems of authority.
VB: How have people responded?
MP: A few people have been reflecting on their own experiences growing up in South Africa and have made contact with me to speak about their experience or their own fathers. Some very complex conversations have started, which is great. The show is very layered and is set up in a way that each viewer will potentially have a different experience of it and this has been the general consensus.
VB: You recently spent one year on residency at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC, and worked with the NYPD, tell me about that and how this experience has influenced your work?
MP: When I got to the SVA, I realized that the police academy my father was went to in NY, was next door to the school. He was sent to research community policing when he was on the board of developing the Metropolitan Police in Johannesburg. This prompted an attempt to try and infiltrate that space and to meet NYPD officers. For four months it was in vain. One evening, a police officer returned my phone call and then suddenly I was in contact with approximately 10 officers. The footage is awkward, and the officers are open and vulnerable. They tell me about their relationship to authority, how they feel when they dress into their uniforms and shift from being civilian to being enforcer of the law. They also tell me a story of an experience they have that has lodged itself into their memory. In the past couple of weeks I have begun this work with SAPS officers.
New York had a profound effect on my work and on my personal life. It was a year and a half in total. It is all sinking in but I think the experience validated my practice; it is so intensely competitive there that I figured I would have to either quit or put my head down and devise a strategy to survive as an artist and I think that is to be more honest in my work and make what ever the fuck I want to make.
VB: What are you working on at the moment?
MP: I am working with appropriating footage of wildlife photographed or filmed in urban environments and cities and I am making gifs or films of them. The footage is screen captured from Skye News or CNN. The research for the work exists as a Facebook feed: Jimi Jim, which has been active since 2012. The work has recently been exhibited as a three-channel installation and the soundtrack is the frenetic sound of one screen showing otters playing a keyboard and the other of an orangutan playing an organ. I am just about to complete a graphic novel I started working on in NY while I was waiting for permission to film the NYPD.
Monique Pelser’s exhibition Conversations with my Father is on at the Alumni Gallery of the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa, for the course of the National Arts Festival 2015.